I’m so thrilled to introduce this week’s Sunny Star—her experience is profound. I heard Marie Berry give a lecture about her current research which assesses how genocide and mass violence can ultimately lead to the political gain and empowerment of women. After hearing her story, I knew that I had to share it with all of you. Not only is she my TA for my sociology class, she is also a wonderful inspiration. I was curious to see how she and the people she studies could be happy considering such a tragic situation. But I was happy to discover that yes, both she and the Rwandan civilians, are able to still see the silver lining.
1. Can you tell us about your current research project?
I’m currently working on my dissertation, which explores the impact of mass violence on women’s political and civic engagement. Most social science research to date looks at the devastating effects of violence on women, and shows that women across the world are repeatedly the targeted object of violence against civilians and suffer psychologically, socially, and economically from its consequences. Yet when I went to Rwanda for the first time in 2007, I discovered that women in Rwanda are highly represented in politics and in civil society organizations. And, shortly after I returned from my second trip to Rwanda in 2008, I learned that Rwandans had elected the world’s only majority of women in Parliament at over 56%. As it turns out, many countries that have experienced mass violence in the past few decades—including Rwanda, East Timor, Uganda, Argentina, and Burundi—have 30% or more women in their national legislatures, which is much higher than the global average of about 18%. So when I realized this, I found it very puzzling: Might mass violence, in some cases, actually precipitate the increase of women in government?
My dissertation aims to explore this question through case studies on Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina, two countries that experienced mass violence in the 1990s, but today have very different levels of women in politics. I’ve spent several summers now in Rwanda, and last summer Bosnia, and I’m convinced that while mass violence certainly has a devastating effect, it can also create opportunities for women to mobilize and engage in politics or civil society in ways that were previously unheard of. I’m excited to continue with the project and see what else I find.
2. How has this project affected your happiness and what have you learned about yourself through the experience?
Conducting fieldwork in post-genocide and post-war countries is an emotionally challenging, but extremely rewarding, experience. Before I came to graduate school I worked with a human rights organization in Rwanda and got to observe and volunteer for several organizations that are active in helping people rebuild their lives after the 1994 genocide. The people I interacted with had often experienced unfathomable horror; many survived the genocide and witnessed the brutal murder of their families and loved ones. I remember when one of my good friends in Rwanda first opened up and shared with me his personal experiences during the genocide. Hearing how he was forced at gunpoint to assault others after he had witnessed the murder of his father and several of his siblings broke my heart. It was exceptionally difficult to comprehend how something so fundamentally evil could have happened to my friend, who was just a teenager at the time.
Yet as devastatingly sad as many of the stories I’ve heard in Rwanda are, there are also stories that speak to the resilience, hope, and strength of the people. For my research I’ve interviewed many women who speak of the need to “stand up and move forward,” or to “be part of the solution.” Each of these women takes the pain they experienced during the genocide and directs it towards creating a future for their children and for the nation as a whole. In Bosnia, I met with widows of the Srebrenica massacre who are trying everyday to bring a sense of normalcy back to their lives. Many have taken up gardening and say that it makes them very happy.
The women I interview are incredibly inspirational; they have overcome the most horrific of circumstances and still have hope, are able to laugh, and serve as models of resilience that help me find happiness in my own life.
3. What has been the most challenging aspect of your research and how have you been able to overcome this?
The most challenging aspect of my research has been coming to grips with the experiences of my interview subjects. I’ve visited mass graves, stood next to heaps of human bones, and talked with people that have survived terrible massacres, but I’ll never be able to fully understand what they have experienced. Yet the strength of the survivors always inspires me to put my own problems in perspective; as much as my life sometimes seems difficult or stressful, I never feel comfortable complaining anymore given the individuals I know who have gone through so much worse.
4. You’ve met many women who have experienced the horrors of genocide yet they still persevere. Do you think these women are able to be happy in their daily lives?
There is certainly a sadness that permeates the lives of many genocide survivors. Yet without a doubt, many still experience happiness in their daily lives. They celebrate their children, their friends, and their families, their work, their future, etc. Some have found happiness and purpose in serving others—one woman I interviewed said she never got over the loss of so many innocent lives during the Rwandan genocide, so today she advocates for children’s health and education. According to her, seeing children grow up in a better world than the one she grew up in makes her happy.